Tracking for Not-So Beginners Part 4
Experience, Articles and Motivation,
The bits that really serious trialists do, often without knowing they do them.
Throughout the preceding articles the majority of the tracking has had specific goals and aims, carefully teaching the different elements and skills. When you have done all the work your dog will have the ability and skill to complete competition tracks. However there will be something missing; you will probably not quite be able to put your finger on it, there will be nothing wrong, but your instincts will tell you it's not quite right. At this stage the bit that's missing is experience, mileage.
To use a simile; when a young person passes a driving test they have a licence which shows that in the eyes of the test authority they are safe to drive on public roads; they have learned how to go round corners, parallel park, use the mirrors, etc.; in short they can drive. After 20 hours of lessons with a driving instructor they have the skill. In a years time, when they have done 15000 miles, had a couple of minor crashes, probably got six points on the licence for speeding, they will be starting to become competent. Possibly a bit wild, but at least aware that other motorists do strange things, speed cameras lurk, and you get stopped by unmarked police cars for using a mobile phone while driving. In short their level of experience is taking them from knowing these things when they think about them, to just knowing at a belief level.
Tracking dogs are very similar (not with the driving, they can't reach the pedals). What your tracking dog is missing at this stage is mileage - the knowledge that comes with doing hundreds of tracks. The experience which tells the dog to keep trying when it's dopey handler won't follow because of any of a dozen reasons, all of which seem logical to the handler. The knowledge which tells it that although they've hit a difficulty, if they keep trying the track will continue. The slightly insane knowledge which tells the dog that tracking is fun, even if it's blowing, raining and very cold.
To give the dog this knowledge and experience is fairly straight forward - you need to do lots of tracks in all weather conditions using all sorts of terrain. This kind of training needn't be a formal competition style track. Do them anywhere; playing fields early in the morning, go out to some common land, moorland, setaside, scrubland, play a bit with hard surface, track at night, on reasonably clean ground lay a track at night and run it the following morning - basically if you can think of it, do it.
A word of warning. When you are building the dog's repertoire of experience, make sure you temper justice with mercy. On new surfaces do long legs, on difficult surfaces track the dog fresh. If you are having a dabble at hard surface start on grass, make sure your shoes take some sap and crushed vegetation onto the hard surface. (I'm getting a picture of someone dragging a dirty great just pulled grass sod across Tesco's car park.) The moisture/ sap from the grass will be enough to help the dog adapt to the new surface. Hard surface doesn't have to be concrete; a crushed stone farm road might be the place to start.
What you are in fact doing is preparing the dog and yourself for the unexpected. When you are doing mileage work the opportunity is there to observe the dog at work, to learn his body language, to get a feel for the variation in line tension on different surfaces and ages of track.
Experience is a two edged sword - the handler as well as the dog needs it.
In this wonderful sport we call Working Trials some of the jargon used can be a bit baffling to a beginner. You will hear the conversation, "How you doing?" (obvious), the answer "Oh, 2 and 3." Ummmm, not so obvious. This refers to the number of articles the dog has found at that particular competition.
When we are training the tracking we go to lots of trouble teaching the dog to do the corners with the minimum of casting to save losing the odd points. Well, a track article is 10 points, so if you do a track that's a bit messy losing, say, six points for casting, you are still better off than missing a track article, where you lose 10 points. If you miss 2 track articles you don't qualify.
Up to now we have assumed you are tracking for food pots. We'll start with a progressive way to change from food pots to articles. The change over can be relatively seamless and can start while the dog is learning the skill as described in the last article (but great care must be taken not to reduce the level of motivation).
It must be remembered that dog have incredible noses, capable of recognizing the tiniest amount of scent. So when we fill food pots it's not only food touching the outside of the pot that the dog will recognize, but if food has touched your finger and your fingers touch the pot, the scent of the food will be transferred as positively as spreading butter with a knife. You will need to start to be careful about the ways you fill your food pots. When you have filled them wash your hands, wash the pots. Change the water and repeat the process; by taking this much trouble the dog will be identifying the scent of the pot as plastic backed by human scent. Continue with your tracking training as normal. The dog will carry on indicating the pots as before. I then start replacing the food pots with relatively easy articles. When the dog indicates the article I reward the dog with food from my pocket, but while rewarding I continue with the same ritual; in my case drop to one knee, keep the dog steady in the down, and reward from below the dog's head height. This helps to maintain the dog solidly going down.
Another word of warning If you are using this whole system, the likelihood will be that the dog is tracking for tracking's sake. There will be a tendency to become casual on the articles, and the indications will decay from a down to a stand, then to a hesitation, then a nod at the article with little or no hesitation. If the handler is inexperienced and just started competing they will be so grateful that the dog is tracking they'll accept the lesser indications. If this continues the indications will disappear altogether, and as you go into higher stakes failure through lack of articles is inevitable.
To avoid this, in training insist on the down on the articles. Randomly, when you have reached a suitable article, unclip the tracking line, place the clip in the exact spot where the article was, walk back down the line and have a game with the article and the dog. As the dog is verging on being track happy, you will probably have to work hard to get him to play with the article. If you throw the article a few feet for him to retrieve, and he looks towards the track as he's returning the article to you, then insist he plays; walk further down the line and continue playing until he forgets the track (if you stay close to the line you will not foul any part of the track which you haven't reached). When he has completely forgotten the track, walk back to the line, clip it on, and tell him to restart. The first few times you do this you might have a bit of difficulty with getting him to restart - what a fine opportunity to practice restarts!
One final thought Motivate………. Motivate………. Motivate………. Motivate……… Motivate…….. Nearly all tracking problems come down to 'Lack of Motivation'. And remember - a fast excited dog isn't necessarily motivated - it could just be 'Fast and Excited'.
Thanks for reading these articles. If you enjoyed them and want to learn more come on a course. Contact no 01623 482181.